Posted by Marcella Klinker

2025: the end of child labour?

Despite significant progress in the last decades, tackling global child labour remains a challenge. SDG Target 8.7 calls for immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour and the end of child labour in all its forms by 2025. Considering the current ILO estimate of 152 million child labourers worldwide, full eradication of child labour within 5 years is a highly ambitious target. With the deadline approaching fast, it’s worth asking whether the measures that are currently in use are capable of reaching this goal.

Supply chain approaches

A recent high-level conference, organised by two Dutch Ministries in collaboration with the ILO, Global March Against Child Labour and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) and fittingly titled ‘Taking Next Steps’, provided an insight into some of the key current areas of action. Much emphasis was placed on child labour interventions upstream in supply chains. One example, Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation Systems (CLRMS), are used most notably by cocoa companies. A widely considered strength of CLRMS is the use of community liaison officers, who can raise awareness in a culturally sensitive way, feeding back information to agencies that can offer remediation strategies to the families concerned. CLMRS approaches are proving to be effective in monitoring and detecting instances of child labour, even in remote and poor areas.

However, although popular with the private sector, some supply chain interventions are sometimes criticized for not addressing the issue of displacement of child labour from one supply chain to another area of the economy where children may be more vulnerable. CLRMS are reportedly effective in mitigating the risk of child labour displacement, but may be less useful in addressing structural issues influencing the occurrence of child labour, such as limited educational infrastructure and poor public infrastructure.

Transparency and traceability play a central role in the success of supply chain interventions. Supply chain mapping can be an important (first) step in understanding supply chain risks with regards to child labour. However, a challenge is creating trust among value chain partners to share data – trust which may be established by building long-term (commercial) commitments.

Due diligence legislation

At the downstream end of supply chains, international due diligence legislation may potentially be a game changer in terms of transforming what are now voluntary supply chain initiatives into hard obligations for buying companies and brands. Significantly, in December 2019, some of the world’s largest chocolate companies called for the European Union to pass EU-wide legislation that would require companies to be responsible for guarding against human rights violations in their cocoa supply chains. Such potential legislation would require companies to adopt preventive measures and subject them to independent third-party audits, as well as requiring them to publish annual reports on their programmes and results. The main driver for this is desire among the leading companies undertaking voluntary supply chain actions for a level playing field with their peers that are less active.

It remains to be seen whether and when such EU-wide due diligence legislation will be initiated and over what timescale. Ahead of any EU-wide regulation, the progress of the Dutch Child Labour Due Diligence Bill, will therefore be worth tracking. The bill requires due diligence analysis and the development of actions plans on child labour by large companies but doesn’t have an expected effective date until 1 January 2022.

Although due diligence legislation could potentially strongly enhance the awareness of companies about the risks of child labour in their supply chains, it is questionable whether laws will be enacted sufficiently quickly to contribute much to the 2025 goal. Moreover, due diligence requirements run the risk of limiting activities to high-level commitments and general risk assessments, rather than creating meaningful action on the ground. While due diligence can identify where the risks of child labour are highest, without deep commitment to in-country projects, such regulations will be inadequate on their own to provide workable ways of  addressing the root causes of child labour, such as cultural issues around children’s work, or tackling child labour in agricultural communities, which remains the biggest challenge.

Integrated approaches

Rather than focus solely on supply chain child labour interventions and promoting due diligence legislation, so-called integrated area approaches may offer a better route to achieve the 2025 goal. An example of this category of interventions is the multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder Child Labour Free Zones approach (CLFZ). CLFZ is widely regarded as effective in addressing root causes of child labour. In addition, informal producers, which have proven hard to reach by supply-chain focused interventions, are likely to be included within the scope of a CLFZ approach because of its focus on tackling child labour within a specific geographic area.

Another category of activities that have had reasonable success are Technical and Vocational Education &  Training Support (TVET) programmes. Such interventions seem to be able to reduce child labour in two ways: through creating more decent work opportunities for older youth, and through potentially raising household incomes, thereby also addressing one of the most frequently mentioned root causes of child labour: poverty. However, research suggests that a successful implementation of TVET initiatives depends on a certain pre-existing level of incentive to access professional or secondary education in target communities. Attaining this might in turn require other interventions.

Challenges ahead

With the year 2025 fast approaching, the need to accelerate progress is obvious. What becomes clear from evaluating past and present approaches is that there is no silver bullet for halting child labour. Often, successful interventions work in specific places and contexts. The challenge is figuring out how to scale up and sustain such interventions. It may be argued that sustained change can only come from within communities dealing with child labour themselves, initiatives which can be hard – and potentially inappropriate – to organise from the outside.

Furthermore, getting companies involved that are not yet participating in or seem interested in work on child labour might prove difficult without wide-reaching due diligence legislation. In addition, ensuring sustainable impact on the root causes of child labour requires extensive investments, long term commitment and secure funding streams, which has proven to be challenging to establish.

Against this background, innovation seems indispensable. Perhaps work on previously less explored approaches, such as a critical evaluation of government procurement practices or integrating private sector initiatives with social security programmes, may prove to be good additions to the methods already used. However, innovation requires trial and error, and, like many of the current successful interventions and developments, will likely be time-consuming and focused on the long-term. It seems safe to say that, even though progress in the eradication of child labour in the near future is highly likely, the goal of eradication by 2025 is extremely challenging.